In a town near Seattle, immigration agents went to the home of a convicted Mexican drug trafficker. In passing they also picked up his son, who had no criminal record and a legal permit to work in the United States.
In El Paso, Texas, agents walked into a county courthouse and detained an immigrant just after she received a protective order as a victim of domestic abuse.
And in Alexandria, Va., agents stood wait one morning across the street from a church, arresting several Latino immigrants as they emerged from a cold weather shelter inside.
Trump administration officials said the recent roundup, in which more than 680 people were arrested, was just more of the “routine, targeted arrests” immigration officers make daily.
But alarmed advocates said agents, fully unleashed by President Trump, had begun the blitz that he promised would deport more than 2 million people. Anxiety verging on panic spread in immigrant neighborhoods, even affecting people whose status was secure. Nanette Diaz Barragan, a Democratic congresswoman from California, said her Mexican-born mother, who long ago became an American citizen, had asked if she would have to start carrying her naturalization papers whenever she went out.
A closer look at the arrests shows the numbers were hardly “routine.” But neither was it a case of agents run amok. It was a coordinated operation planned before Trump’s inauguration, but carried out by agents confident they have a broadened mandate under the new president. It revealed how the Trump administration is accelerating its crackdown, widening its net to detain undocumented immigrants whether or not they are “bad hombres” with serious criminal records.
Immigration officials, met with protests in many places, also discovered they can expect legal challenges and local resistance as they press forward with the crackdown.Business as usual?
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly sought to downplay the arrests, saying Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts such operations “regularly, and has for many years.”
It depends on what the secretary means by “regularly.” In the last years of the Obama administration, agents looking for gangs and drug traffickers arrested about 100 immigrants in Los Angeles in a July 2016 sweep. Before that, the most recent similar effort was a nationwide surge that yielded 2,059 arrests in March 2015.
In the five metro areas where the arrests were concentrated – Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Antonio – it did not feel like the normal routine. Immigrants were already on edge because of two executive orders by Trump calling for a big increase in deportations – which, unlike the travel ban, have not been halted by federal courts. Word of the movements of officers from the immigration agency, which is known as ICE, sped across frantic twitter feeds and text messages.
“It felt different because it was Trump,” said Maggie Castillo, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. “We had the executive orders and then all of a sudden here comes ICE pulling people over. We all said, ‘Okay, it has started now.’”Targeting Criminals?
In his speech on Saturday in Florida, President Trump told his supporters the operations were expelling “bad, bad people.” They were “gang members and drug dealers who are right now as I speak being thrown out of the country and they will not be let back in,” he said, to cheers.
In most cases, it is true, ICE officers went looking for specific people with criminal histories, carrying some form of warrant. In an official tally, ICE said 495 people arrested had prior criminal convictions. They included a Mexican arrested in Georgia who was wanted for murder back home; a Salvadoran in New York convicted of gang-related assault; a Honduran man in Los Angeles with a felony record for drug dealing.
ICE did not release names, citing privacy rules, so the records of most of those arrested could not be confirmed.
Lawyers in Georgia representing several immigrants who were detained said some had serious offenses, but others committed minor crimes that were not regarded as priorities for deportation in the final years of President Obama. Those included speeding, driving without a license, low-level drug possession, or convictions that were years old.
“The pendulum has swung,” said Carlos Solomiany, a lawyer in Atlanta. “It looks like anyone here illegally is now a priority.”
In numerous instances, agents came looking for one person but arrested others they encountered who could not show valid papers. Under Obama, ICE often left those “collaterals” alone. Now officials say they will likely be detained.
Daniel Ramirez, a 23-year-old from Mexico, was one of the bystanders. According to ICE, his father, Antonio Ramirez Polendo, had been deported six times before 2006 and served a year in prison in Washington state for narcotics trafficking.
ICE agents followed the father with a warrant to his home in Des Moines, Wash. after he dropped off a younger son at school. Daniel was asleep when agents rousted him from bed and, spotting a tattoo on his forearm, took him away in handcuffs as a gang member.
In a court declaration, Daniel Ramirez said he repeatedly denied any gang association and told the agents he had a work permit under an Obama administration program for immigrants who came when they were children, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
In an unusual legal action, a group of volunteer lawyers, including Theodore J. Boutros, went to federal court to claim Ramirez’s arrest violated a guarantee of protection offered by DACA.
In court papers, they also presented a note Ramirez Medina had written in detention, in which a crucial phrase appeared to have been crudely erased. The defense lawyers accused the authorities of doctoring the note to make it seem he had admitted being in a gang.
“This is an attempt to railroad a young man based on ugly racial stereotypes and not a shred of evidence,” said one of his lawyers, Mark Rosenbaum of the pro bono law firm Public Counsel.Hunting fugitives?
Dozens of people arrested were said to be fugitives: they had final deportation orders from immigration courts that were never carried out. The Obama administration, under priorities adopted in November 2014, had not pursued those orders if the immigrants did not have other serious crimes. Many date from southwest border crossings during the frenetic peak of illegal immigration a decade or more ago.
Under Trump, agents will more systematically execute those orders. The pool is enormous – about 960,000 people, officials say,not counting those already in detention – and it includes many immigrants who may not be aware of the orders because they were issued by judges in absentia.Blocking roads?
Homeland Security officials furiously denied early alerts from immigrant groups saying agents had set up roadway checkpoints, calling the reports “false, dangerous and irresponsible.” A traffic stop on Feb. 10 in Austin, Texas, which seems to have prompted rumors there, ended in a felony charge against the driver for assault on a federal officer. Hugo Baltazar Ramírez, a Mexican, got out and wrestled with the agent who stopped him, the charges say, pounding his head on the pavement.Rogue agents?
By and large the arrests were consistent with the operation plan, Homeland Security officials said. But there were signs that agents felt emboldened, given their strong backing from President Trump.
In a joint press release after the executive orders, the unions representing ICE deportation officers and Border Patrol agents lauded his “swift and decisive action to keep the American people safe and allow law enforcement to do its job.” They said the orders “now empower us” to carry out Trump’s policies.
In El Paso, a federal agent shocked county officials by walking into a courtroom on Feb. 9 to wait for Irvin Gonzalez, a transgender immigrant from Mexico who had filed three reports of abuse by her boyfriend, including a claim he chased her with a knife. After being granted a restraining order, Gonzalez was arrested for deportation.
According to charges against her, Gonzalez had been deported six times before and had eight criminal convictions, including for domestic violence. In an official document, immigration agents said they arrested her on the street outside the courthouse.
But the county attorney, Jo Anne Bernal, released a security video showing two agents leading Gonzalez away from the courtroom. Bernal decried the “horrible message” the arrest sent to abuse victims seeking protection.
At a peacemaking session on Friday, an ICE official said the courthouse action would not be repeated and assured county officials the tactics were “not an order from President Trump,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who called the meeting. O’Rourke, a Democrat, said he still had hope the good relations between law enforcement and residents in the border city would not be damaged by Trump’s crackdown.